By Taij Kumarie Moteelall
My personal and professional journey as an artist/activist and non-profit leader has paved the way for SiOP, and I truly believe that it has immense significance for movement building. As the network weaver for SiOP, I want to share a bit about my journey and why I believe that this work is critical.
In my early 20’s, as I was finishing graduate school at New York University, I started working full-time at a social service organization. My job search was guided by the need for financial sustainability and values alignment. After an extensive job search, and several offers in corporate America, I underwent a great deal of soul-searching. I asked myself: Which job would truly align with my values and vision? Like many artists/activists, I landed in the nonprofit sector. Much of my social justice organizing was done on a voluntary basis because a number of organizations I worked with did not have a budget for paid staff. I began working full-time at a little storefront after school program in East Harlem that had become a national model for youth development. And, I continued my social justice organizing as a volunteer. I was drawn to East Harlem Tutorial Program (EHTP) because the Executive Director at that time, Carmen Vega-Rivera, represented so much of what I envisioned myself being. She was a dynamic Latina who committed herself to working with her community in El Barrio to bring about deep social change. She was a loving and compassionate artist/activist, and a phenomenal visionary.
Throughout my tenure at EHTP, I remained unsettled about how a majority-White board could wield so much power over a majority People of Color staff. I saw Carmen bare the brunt of the burden, often sheltering the rest of the staff from the challenges she faced. After over six years, climbing the ranks from Development Associate to Director of Development and Communications, I left EHTP with a heavy heart and filled with confusion. In addition to the great work the organization was doing to provide needed services to young people in East Harlem, I witnessed firsthand the way power dynamics played out in unhealthy ways and how that led to maintaining the status quo versus transformative change. While I understand the need for social services as we organize for systemic change, the leadership paradigm at EHTP made it feel like we were working to uphold the very system that created the need for supplementary educational programs in a low-income neighborhood.
I was hurt and burnt out by the social service sector and tired of “band-aid” solutions funded by philanthropists who simply did not get it. Holding the pain of Carmen close to my heart, I wanted to figure out how to resource the grassroots groups that I volunteered with so we could have the capacity to move a transformative change agenda at scale. I saw an amazing Woman of Color leader give relentlessly to an organization only to repeatedly suffer from the pangs of racism, sexism and classism. The only space she had for healing was among our small management team, comprised primarily of Women of Color. I will never forget the day when I held her in my arms as she wept with feelings of powerlessness and despair. It did not make sense, and it lit a fire under me. After serving as an Interim Director for over six months when Carmen left, believing that I could potentially bring about change, I too exited EHTP with feelings of despair. At the same time my fire burnt brighter than ever: I was determined to transform leadership and the nonprofit sector.
During a key transition moment in my life, I came across an organization that organized young people with wealth who wanted to both fund and be part of progressive social change movements. I was in awe that such an organization existed and was quite intrigued. I saw that they were searching for a new Executive Director and decided to throw my hat in, even though the organization was based in Boston and I lived in New York City. My job search had started with the obvious— seeking a higher paying and more challenging development position. After several interviews and two very lucrative offers, I made an intentional decision to not climb the ranks as a development professional in the social service sector.
The interview process for the Executive Director position of Resource Generation (RG) revealed so much to me and opened me up to a whole new world. Social Justice Philanthropy was a brand new reality to me, though it was part of my vision for a just and sustainable world. I was ecstatic when I received an offer to be the new director of RG. I accepted the offer immediately although I would be earning significantly less than what I was making at EHTP. I negotiated working from home in NYC for 25% of my time, and immediately began making plans to live in two cities. I was newly engaged and my partner, who had just moved in with me, could not move to Boston since his work was primarily based in NY. So, we decided to keep our place in NY and I would look for an apartment share in Boston. It was a lot to figure out in such a short time, but I was resolute on making it happen.
Becoming an Executive Director at such a young age was a life changing experience, especially the first Woman of Color director of an organization comprised of primarily White, wealthy young people. While I do not identify as wealthy, RG prides itself on being lead by a cross-class team. I honestly did not realize the immense learning curve ahead of me when I accepted the position, nor did I have the resources to invest in much needed leadership development. Prior to starting at RG, I did not know that the organization was in a financial crisis. During my second week on the job, I found out that the organization did not have any funds to operate and was borrowing money from our fiscal sponsor. This news came from a former RG staff member. There was no time for vital learning needed on my part; I had to jump right into problem solving by hitting the ground running. I think there was even an expectation, from others and myself, for me to sprout wings and fly.
That same week that I found out about RG’s deficit, which was unknown to the board and staff of the organization at the time, I was pulled into the office of another Executive Director who shared an office space with us. She was a remarkable Woman of Color who quickly became a confidant. She told me stories that elucidated how often people of color—and Women of Color in particular—were hired into organizations historically led by White people, and were set up to fail rather than supported to succeed. The stories had me shaking and revealed how the problem was much larger than what was going on at RG. In fact, it was systemic. She also told me that it was not too late to leave, encouraging me to “do a deep gut check and get out” while I can. After speaking to several other Women of Color directors, and listening passionately to their stories, I started to understand how unique and difficult our situation was due to the multiple layers of oppression that we faced. I also saw so many commonalities in our stories. I thought about leaving RG, but that simply was not an option for me at the time.
For me, RG was incredibly needed in social justice movements so I did not want to see the organization go under. I honestly believed that I could turn things around given my extensive fundraising experience and the fact that RG works with a constituency who identify as wealthy. It took me some time to realize that the answer was not merely about working harder or applying more robust fundraising tactics. That was part of it. The big learning curve was figuring out how to build authentic relationships with folks who shared my values and vision for a just and sustainable world, but who were different from me socio-economically and culturally. It was a challenge, to say the least, to try and build compassionate and trusting relationships when I was filled with anger about being hired into an organization that could not afford to pay staff, and while simultaneously drowning in my own anxiety about failing or not being good enough.
I worked the day into night and constantly felt the toll on my body, mind and spirit. I saw myself going down a similar path as Carmen. I lost touch with several of the volunteer organizations that I worked with and was removed from my community of support. Folks at RG wondered why I was so angry and why the organization was no longer a fun place. I took the financial situation extremely seriously and made that my top priority. On retrospect, I should have made building trusting relationship an equally important priority. However, it was hard to do that when I felt deceived and alone. Several people who hired me left the organization in the midst of the crisis. I began to see how, despite the best of intentions, if we do not do deep work at the personal, interpersonal and organizational level to transform culture and practice, than those of us committed to social justice were simply reinforcing the very systems we seek to undo.
At the end of the day, RG overcame its financial crisis when its constituency rose to the challenge and supported the organization in a major way. New volunteer leaders stepped up with energy and fierceness. I slowly hired a new staff and we began prioritizing personal work and team building alongside our programmatic and infrastructure building work. It took many sleepless nights on my part, and affirmed for me “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Yet, I still know that it should not be so hard. My experience at RG tested me on many levels while transforming me in profound ways. I left the organization with beautiful, trusting relationships with members of the RG community, and I remain awe-inspired with the work of the organization. I also witnessed that when we go deep, allow ourselves to be vulnerable and have hard conversations that we can begin to bridge social divides of race, class and gender.
What carried and sustained me throughout my RG journey was a powerful community of Women of Color leaders who became my underground network of support. These women helped me to understand that I was not alone, and to develop a lens through which to make sense of our collective experiences. I see how the narrative about not being good enough is constantly reinforced daily by a White dominated world and a male dominated world. For me, and many of my sisters, we are often caught up in mastering systems and paradigms that are counter-intuitive and do not fit us. Because of the dearth of funding for leadership development and the lack of overall capacity in our sector, we don’t have the leeway and luxury to step back, reflect and build our own authentic leadership. SiOP seeks to fill this void by creating a space for collectively visioning a new way forward and to affirm that being a Woman of Color leader means that we are able to bring our whole selves and create something new versus trying to become masters of systems and institutions that simply don’t fit.
As I stand now on the horizon, preparing to launch SiOP, I am more committed than ever to create spaces for Women of Color leaders and emerging leaders to do the deep personal, interpersonal and organizational work that is needed for social transformation. My EHTP and RG experiences planted the seeds for SiOP. I believe that what has existed as an underground support system, has the potential to spark large-scale transformation, formalized into a national movement-building network with the goals of shifting the culture of organizations and our movement, and to build a new paradigm of leadership.
Standing in Our Power is also a proactive solution to addressing the predicted leadership crisis, or as some have framed it, a leadership opportunity, in the nonprofit sector. In the book “Working Across Generations: Defining the Future of Nonprofit Leadership,” the authors make a case for new leadership models in order to retain and attract next generation leaders in the sector. They also speak of the need to work inter-generationally. SiOP will address both of these issues by working to co-create new leadership models and by bringing women together across generations to be in a community of practice.